Wednesday, 22 February 2012

'Five Truths' video installation, Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds 13th Feb 2012

I was lucky enough to visit this intriguing piece of work on its opening night and the introductions from the Opera North and Victoria and Albert Museum personnel really helped set the scene. Up to that point I'd had no real idea what it was I had come to see - exciting in itself - and the rest of the experience was based on a similar level of ignorance, but in a thoroughly involving way. I found out that the V&A collect performing arts materials and that this project came about from research into a production of Hamlet directed by Stanislavski. No film of the performance survived and this led to a consideration of the 'truths' around theatrical performances. There can never be a right or a wrong production but every director endeavours to bring a new interpretation to even a well-known play like Hamlet.

The result of this research is 'Five Truths' - five performances of a single scene by five different directors, each one showing Ophelia descending into madness and played stunningly by the same actress Katie Mitchell. The five performances were videoed and then shown on two screens each, within a darkened room.

Needless to say, having entered this magical dark space the effect of these screens playing out such a harrowing scene was mesmerising, confusing and at times distressing. I found myself unsure how to view the work, standing in the middle and just glancing around or concentrating on one performance at a time. In the end, knowing I was to blog about the event I chose the latter, but of course I couldn't ignore the other performances going on around me. The almost silent and internalised Stansilavski interpretation kept being interrupted by the heart-rending wailing of Grotowski's Ophelia descending in a shuddering Bedlam of madness.

Each performance ended with the actress drowning herself and this immediately took the performance away from the stage production to the filmic since I'm sure Ophelia's drowning occurs off stage. Our images of the event come from the cinema or even pre-Raphaelite art. This raised the question of how well I knew the play, clearly the Brecht performance had substituted some modern language about credit cards and other financial stuff for Shakespeare's words and I then began to notice other alterations and stretching of the original school texts I studied. What of course I couldn't know was how representative of the styles of the different directors these films were, since I assume they all directed stage plays rather than film versions.

An altogether fascinating experience then, a wonderful combination of the visceral and the intellectual. I came away wanting to know more about the history of theatre direction and also remembering some of the live performances of Hamlet I have enjoyed over the years including one in Bulgaria in a floodlit castle patrolled by policemen carrying guns!

'Five Truths' continues until 25 February 2012 and there is also a 'Who Is Ophelia' installation trail around Leeds which looks rather good. Details here

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Spring Exhibition at The Hepworth, Wakefield 8th February 2012

I was absolutely delighted to get Culture Vulture's invite to this bloggers preview at The Hepworth  as I have been itching to visit this wonderful new venue ever since it opened to such acclaim last year. I am pleased to say that the gallery did not disappoint and we were all made to feel most welcome as we gathered to view their new spring exhibition. After a short but heartfelt greeting from Simon Wallis the director we were taken on a guided tour of the three gallery spaces given over to the work of artists Ben Rivers, David Thorpe and Heather & Ivan Morison. Frances, the Head of Collections I think, explained that for this new show they had decided to try something different by inviting these four artists to show across the three temporary gallery spaces with work which while very different created a dialogue across the spaces through the intertwined themes of utopian, post-apocalyptic societies.

We began with the remarkably crafted work of David Thorpe with its overt references to the theories of the Arts and Crafts movement and rejection of contemporary fine art practices where artists remove themselves from the actual making of their work, employing armies of technicians to realise their visions instead. We heard that David uses traditional techniques to paint, manufacture and build his pieces but is all too aware that by doing so he lays his work open to being rejected as 'fine' art. The decorated boxes on legs shown here are like creatures that bristle against such opinions, one gives out a warning hum, while another has a small hole cut down to its core from where a bright white light shines representing the pure soul that all such hand-crafted items have. The attention to detail was clear although the leather cutwork decoration and the friezes of glazed tiles were fooling no-one who looked closely, they mimicked historic styles but could never be exact reproductions. Immersion in the process of making seems to be the key to these pieces, allowing the artist to experience the pleasure of producing good work, well-made just as Ruskin preached. The work thus becomes an active expression of these utopian principles.

In the next gallery we glimpsed a short section of Ben River's film  'Slow Action' with its wonderfully eerie vision of post-apocalyptic human communities, isolated and evolving in separate directions. Masked, paint-daubed humans postured and danced in a variety of exotic island locations. We didn't get to hear the accompanying soundtrack but the Lord of the Flies vibe was quite powerful enough. The use of glowing 16mm film stock added to the feeling I had that we were watching a historic ethnographic study rather than a future world as was suggested by the artist himself who kindly left off setting up his work to chat to us about the ideas behind the film. We heard that inspiration came from a commission to celebrate Charles Darwin's anniversary where he had learned about the importance of the study of isolated populations of animal species on islands to Darwin's theories of evolution.

In the third and final gallery, we entered yet another strange world, this one created by Heather & Ivan Morison. Although it was still in progress of construction, what we saw was a collection of seemingly disparate rather Dali-esque sculptures and giant friezes which together were to form a stunning whole. What we were in fact seeing and hearing was an interpretation of the science fiction novel 'Ice' by 20th century British author Anna Kavan. Pieces in the room represented characters in the story which confusingly blends fiction with the author's own life story. A giant illuminated balloon anchored to a stool made of iron that looked like wood, represented a Child lost to the author but also part of the novel. A huge black broken square painted on the wall represented a male character blackened through fire and known as the Warden while a silvery block painted in multiple layers on the adjoining wall was the female character, the 'purest of forms'. Ivan Morison explained to me about how the black and white pigments used came from burnt and ground up animal bones, mixed with soot taken from the chimneys of Wakefield houses. Other items in the exhibition were made from cement mirroring the cement used to clad The Hepworth's facades and chalk gathered in the artists' home town of Brighton - linking and earthing the pieces into both their actual and their artistic milieu.  We heard that water will eventually pour from the ceiling and that gallery staff are to be involved in puppet performances of the story at intervals during the exhibition. A quite extraordinary tour de force even in the state we saw it in.

It was a fitting end to a delightful and inspiring evening. I would suggest that the show could stand repeat visits to truly appreciate all its subtelties and to unravel both the individual artistic stories and to grasp the links between them, the reward will be images and concepts that will stay with you for a very long time.

The show continues until 10th June 2012 and entrance is free. Further details here.

Many thanks again to the Culture Vulture for organising the event and to the staff and artists at The Hepworth who so freely gave of their time - it was much appreciated.